It would have made an awful lot more sense to have this arc come directly after the discussion of heroism at the end of episode 16, but I heard a rumour that the scheduling and order was tweaked so that this episode could air on Mother’s Day. Which frankly I’d be inclined to believe, given how self-congratulatorily gritty and dark these guys like being. We get it, okay. Your show is tragic and awful! You don’t need to rub it in while crowing like edgy TV exec roosters!
Anyway. Kiritsugu’s grown up a little, and is slowly evolving into what will become internationally known as the Mage Killer, which involves all sorts of fun stuff like learning to put guns together and having bits of his ribs carved out. That flash to the mysterious exposition-spouting white-haired woman in his fight with Kayneth now makes sense, except now we see the state Kiritsugu was in to make that awesomeness happen, i.e., excruciating pain. Is there anything about magic that doesn’t suck? No.
He and his mentor (and apparently personal surgeon and bullet-maker), Natalia, settle into a life of travel and badassery. With both the Mage’s Association and the Church on the prowl for Bad Mages for their own reasons, and seemingly on a constant quest to headbutt and one-up each other, work is plentiful for assassins who know a thing or two about magic. Natalia has no moral ties to either of the groups and will happily take contracts from either of them as long as she gets paid, which makes me wonder what exactly her history is. If we thought Kiritsugu was unconventional for having seemingly no ties to the mage hierarchy that Kayneth and Waver belong to, and none of the family-centric ambitions for knowledge that clans like Tohsaka and Matou do, Natalia is one swaggering step more removed.
We don’t, unfortunately, learn more about her than the absolute bare minimum we need to understand that she’s a badass hired killer who straddles the divide between modern tech and magic, and taught Kiritsugu everything he knows (including that fire-based disasters are the best place to adopt children, apparently, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). She’s cold, hypnotic, smoky and dangerous as dry ice, and doesn’t display any pride or familial feeling even when little Kerry is at his cutest.
And he is little. Time to do some maths. Officially it’s noted (spoiler alert) that Kiritsugu died when he was 34, which means five years previously, during the War that makes up Fate/Zero, he was 29. And if we believe what Tokiomi and Kirei say about him moving in with the Einzberns nine years before then, it means he retired into exclusive service and family life when he was 20. Which means… this teenager, that we see in this episode, is the Mage Killer. He did all his battlefield-hopping, notoriety-spiking, fear-inducing magical mercenary work before he was twenty years old.
I’m not sure if I’m horrified or impressed by that. Neither is Natalia, though, who tells him towards the end of the episode that she was actually kind of freaked out by how easily he could switch off his compassion and steady his hand to kill people, even as a young adolescent. He’s cemented the ‘killing for a greater cause’ thing so solidly in his head that it propels him through the worst of situations. When he gets frustrated that bad people continue to do bad things, Natalia just scoffs and says that his dad (now dead) was just the tip of one particular iceberg. In order to totally rid the world of evil, obviously you’d have to go around killing every single person who does evil.
She also tells him not be a hero, which is a bit of a blow to the lad, especially as he’s yanked back from diving in to rescue a pair of civilians (including a young boy! Dad instincts!) and as such has to watch them get shot. Well, Natalia argues, if you’d run in there trying to help you would have been shot too, and then you wouldn’t be around to help other people. Chasing the glory of martyrdom and self-sacrifice is logically useless if you actually want to continue to get stuff done, an interesting theme to bring up as it calls back to Saber’s kingly dilemma. And the whole survival of the self vs survival of the few vs survival of the many becomes horribly relevant at the climax of this flashback.
On a routine mission to take out a heretic mage, things get personal, and not just because said mage uses enchanted bees to spread the zombie-vampire strain Papa Emiya was working on. Mage Killer Co. decide that Natalia will discreetly perform the assassination on his plane flight to New York, and Kiritsugu will intercept them when they land, masquerading as an ambulance officer, and cart the dead body away to claim their cash. It’s all going swimmingly, including Kiritsugu’s successful theft of an ambulance (where did you get that? Won’t someone notice it’s gone?), until magic-biohazard-carrying bee-wasps from Hell erupt from the mage’s dead body and start stinging the bejeezus out of everyone.
Natalia finds herself locked in the cockpit piloting a plane full of flesh-hungry undead and evil wasps, and Kiritsugu, on the ground, muses that absolutely nothing in his life and schooling has prepared him for this specific situation (fair enough). He only has a limited amount of time before the plane lands, and when it does, presumably the welcome party is going to be greeted by a zombie plague. If it laid waste to the island town, imagine what it could do to a heavily populated city like NYC, especially now that the bloody thing is airborne in the form of bumble-demons. Talking it out with Natalia, from the strange position of a boat in the middle of the harbour, they work out a vague plan and exchange the closest they’ve ever come to a heart-to-heart.
“I really did think of you as my mother” he tells her, and shortly thereafter, amidst swelling music, swirling seagulls, and the deceptively peaceful glow of new dawn light, produces a rocket launcher and blows the damn plane out of the sky.
Oh my God. Oh my God Kerry no.
We catch Natalia smiling as fire and explosions rip up through the plane towards her, as if she expected as much. It’s almost a final silent signal of good job, kid before her life ends, and with it, the threat of World War Z happening many years early. So Kiritsugu saved everyone from Brad Pitt and his mullet (for now) at the cost of the only person in the world he could really call family. He falls to his knees, appealing to Shirley, delighting somewhat tensely that he didn’t mess up this time, he did the right thing, he cut disaster off at its source and saved millions upon millions of people. He’s a hero.
And it breaks him. He screams and weeps and berates himself and calls the name of the last friend he ever had, and collapses into a shattered heap in the bottom of the boat. I talked about this before, but my God is it a moving scene, and cements why I enjoy him so much as a character: he has the whole gritty, tragic anti-hero thing going on, complete with women fridged for the sake of his emotional narrative (two in the space of two episodes!), but we see how it affects him. He’s distraught and heartbroken and we have no idea what he’s going to do next. He is a teenaged boy alone in the world with only his ideals for company, and those ideals are the ones that made him tear his vague excuse for a family apart—again—in the first place.
So, this is why we got this flashback. We understand now what his dilemma is, what he’s like on the inside when no one’s around: an emotional, tormented mess, torn between the love and compassion he feels to individuals and his desire to make the world a better place. On one hand, there’s the logic that one person’s death for the sake of a thousand people’s lives is odds you can’t argue with—why should your attitude to it change if that one person is someone you love? It’s a compelling and chilling philosophical question (and one that I understand repeats itself rather neatly a few times throughout Fate/Stay Night, too) to end the episode on.
On the other hand, everything is awful and we’re all crying.